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Why Poverty Can Be Traumatic
August 19, 2021

While people recognize that living in poverty can be stressful, it might not be clear how or why it can cause traumatic experiences. Let’s break it down to see the pathways from poverty to trauma and the consequences for a child’s vulnerability to trafficking.

Poverty’s Relationship to Trauma

Trauma does not only come from singular events. It can also develop from repetitive stressors if they are challenging enough to undermine a child’s fundamental sense of security. If a child doesn’t always know where they will sleep that night or where their next meal might come from, or if their caretakers are absent or work unpredictable hours, it can have a lasting impact on their psychological and emotional well-being. “​​Living in a financially unstable environment can threaten a child’s sense of safety because it may mean they can’t access basic needs—like food, shelter, and healthy relationships—on a consistent basis.” (Source: Health)

Added to this is how poverty can also induce shame. Shame for being low-income can come from the wider community, as subtly as noticing comparative lack or as openly as through bullying and the threat of violence. This kind of shame “can result in withdrawal, self-loathing, despair, depression, and a reduction in personal agency.” (Source: Health

The Implications of Poverty-Induced Trauma

Recognizing poverty’s impact as potentially traumatic is essential because it has so many consequences. It impacts brain development and executive functioning, making it difficult to remember things, pay attention, make decisions, and stay on task. These brain functions are essential to the life skills that can keep one in school and employed, or later, take care of one’s children. 

Without these skills, the cycle of poverty is more likely to continue. Toxic levels of stress and trauma can lead to panic, anxiety, or depressive disorders, which may impede healthy functioning. They also can manifest in behavioral dysfunction that can lead to poor school performance, punishment in school, or even arrests. 

It can even lead to life-long challenges in one’s relationship to things like money or food. “Habitually living with depleted and distressed resources can induce traumatic memories. For some who have worked their way towards economic stability, flashbacks pertaining to the insecurity and difficulties they survived can rise to the surface weeks, months, or even years later.” (Source: Health Hub at Valley Oaks)

Finally, poverty can also undermine a child’s ability to maintain healthy relationships. “A student with a trauma history may have difficulty trusting teachers, authority figures or peers. They may also isolate themselves or be drawn into unhealthy romantic relationships.” (Source: Resilient Educator)

And yet, poverty also means it’s that much more difficult to access help. Impoverished areas are less likely to have available resources, and people in poverty are less likely to be able to afford them. 

The Link to Child Trafficking and Prevention

All of this helps explain why children in poverty are particularly susceptible to the lures of traffickers. Their life experiences have primed them to be vulnerable to anyone who offers financial security, access to food or shelter, or promises of love and affection–while also undermining their cognitive ability to make good decisions and control their impulses.

As a result, a holistic approach to preventing child trafficking means helping to secure material needs like food and shelter. By taking care of schooling costs, we free up family resources to make basic needs more manageable. And the holistic approach means investing in healthy relationships that provide emotional security, healing, and resilience as a buffer against the trauma of poverty. Through a holistic approach, we aim to reduce the barriers to a child’s success and build up their strengths, keeping them safe and protected from those who would exploit them. 

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